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How a Pair of College Students Persuaded Their Town to Legalize Urban Farming

February 19, 2014
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How a Pair of College Students Persuaded Their Town to Legalize Urban Farming
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The legacy of Collicello Gardens will live on long after the farm has run its course.

It’s not often that college students make an investment in their rental homes. But then again, most college students aren’t like Sam Frere and Dan Warren. In the spring of 2012, the James Madison University students asked their landlord if they could convert the front, side and back yards of their rental home into an urban farm. Once they had the OK, they got to work on Collicello Gardens — named for the street they lived on — planting everything from flowers to tomatoes to kale and squash. Their goal was to create a business that would earn them decent wages, while also providing them with opportunities to test their ideas for innovative horticulture. In their first year, they started selling their produce through Community Supported Agriculture, and gained quite a following. They even had the supply to start weekly produce deliveries to dozens of customers. Prospects for their burgeoning business were looking good — until they went to apply for their business license. It just so happened that Harrisonburg, Virginia, prohibited farming.

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What’s an entrepreneur to do? For Frere and Warren, the choice was clear. The pair spent the fall and winter fighting against the city ordinance, drafting proposals, going to public hearings and drumming up support for Collicello Gardens and other projects like it. Despite some opposition from neighbors content with only seeing rows of pristine lawns, a new ordinance was approved in March 2013. Collicello Gardens was alive once more, and just in time for summer. Frere and Warren spent the spring reconfiguring their micro-farm, making every inch as efficient as possible. They figured if they could get 30 customers to pay $95 a month for local, delivered produce, they’d make more than enough to offset costs. Despite a rough start to the season, more than a dozen customers signed up from the get-go, raising their hopes. From there, business evened out. They managed to get 15 customers for their delivery service, and were able to sell more of their goods at farmers markets, but eventually they weren’t making enough to keep the business going. By the end of the season, Collicello Gardens was no more.

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But just because Frere and Warren’s business didn’t succeed doesn’t mean that it was a failure. Their passion for agriculture helped persuade a city to change its laws, benefiting citizens in ways that are yet to be realized. And as Andrew Jenner, a neighbor of Frere and Warren, points out in Modern Farmer, the garden itself was “a remarkable proof-of-concept of the sheer amount of produce that motivated and creative farmers can harvest off a tenth of an acre.” While they weren’t bringing in the money they expected, they had more food than could fill their bellies — and good food at that. While Frere has moved on from Collicello Street, Warren still lives in the same home and works at a local food co-op. He often talks to neighbors about how they can start their own urban farms, proving that even though Collicello Gardens is dead, its legacy will live on.

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